Cree land is on its way to becoming the trash can of Quebec.

Quebec Environment Minister David Cliche has approved a proposal to build a massive garbage dump in Chapais on the traplines of Lawrence Dixon of Waswanipi and Freddy Capassisit of Ouje-Bougoumou.

Each year, up to 80,000 tonnes of waste will be imported from southern cities with garbage-disposal problems. Another 20,000 tonnes will be dumped by Chapais itself.

Cliche approved the dump on May 1 even though an environmental panel that held public hearings into the project last year turned it down. The COMEX environmental committee set up under the James Bay Agreement had never before turned down a development project in its 18-year life.

But last December, a majority of COMEX’s five members (two Cree reps and three from Quebec) recommended that the dump be rejected.

“The committee felt it was not justified,” said Hervé Chatignier, the committee’s secretary. “They did not demonstrate there was a need.

“It was presented in such a way that the population did not have a clear view of what was taking place. There were a lot of expectations in terms of jobs that turned out to be hypothetical.”

Committee members also noted that there is already a dump in Chibougamau with lots of spare capacity, and Ouje-Bougoumou got a permit last year to build another dump 10 km outside Chapais.

Brian Craik, a Cree rep on the committee, said the South should solve its own garbage problems. “First, they go up and flood all the trees. Then they cut down all the trees. Then they dump their garbage here. It’s insulting.”

Cliche’s decision appears to contradict a promise he made to reject the dump in a March 29 meeting with Chief Abel Bosum. Bosum said Cliche made it clear he wouldn’t approve the project because it went against a new Quebec policy on garbage announced last year. The new policy opposes exporting garbage from one region to another, a practice already banned in most provinces in Canada.

Lyne Jacques, an aide to Cliche who was also at the meeting, acknowledged that the minister had concerns about the dump proposal, but denied that he had changed his mind.”The minister always said there was no question of accepting the proposal as it was,” she told The Nation.

Jacques said Cliche approved the dump only on the condition that each time garbage is sent North, it is approved by the minister.

She said garbage will be sent to the North only in emergencies. “If we have a city whose garbage dump is overflowing and they refuse to do something about it, we would allow the transport of the waste to Chapais – but only for a temporary time. Or to stave off a natural disaster.”

But Susan Hilton, a Cree representative on another environmental committee, was skeptical. In practice, she said, the approvals will be handled by bureaucrats in remote regional offices known for their lax standards. “The allure of the North is there’s no environmental law.”

Questions are being raised about whether political influence changed Cliche’s mind about the dump.

The man who will operate the dump is Gérard Morin, a Jonquière engineer who used to work for Chapais. Morin told The Nation he is a friend of Premier Lucien Bouchard and Jonquière’s PQ MNA, Jacques Brassard. Brassard was Environment Minister during most of the time Morin was lobbying for the dump.

“I know Lucien Bouchard very well and I’m certain he knows me, too,” Morin said.

Asked if he ever went to Bouchard or Brassard to seek their help in getting the dump approved, he said, “I never met them personally, but I met what we can call people around them to discuss it, certainly. I also met the deputy of Ungava (Michel Letourneau).”

Morin also may have been helped by the fact that both Bouchard’s and Brassard’s ridings in Lac-St-Jean have enormous garbage problems and are likely to be first in line to send their waste to James Bay.

Morin said the dump will pump money into Chapais’s economy. He has signed a deal to rent the site – the old Minova mine – from the city for $3.50 per tonne of waste.

But like Crees, many Chapais residents still have misgivings about the mine.

“It’s sure it will be bad for the environment,” one Chapais businessman told The Nation. “What does it give us to have a garbage dump if there is already one 10 kilometres away?”

In a survey of Chapais residents conducted for the Grand Council of the Crees last winter, 77 per cent said the South should handle its own garbage and not send it to their town. In Chibougamau, 81 per cent agreed. Also, 68 per cent of people in Chapais and 83 per cent in Chibougamau were worried the dump may contaminate groundwater and soil in the area.

Many residents supported the dump because they wanted jobs. But most of the jobs associated with the project were to come from a separate proposal to build a recycling facility near the dump. This project appears to have fallen through. Without the recycling component, only 34 per cent in Chapais said they would support the dump.